First of all, many don’t believe that humans are ruled by the same laws determining their population size as bacteria are, or whales or even chimpanzees. After all, many people still think that humans and nature are not only separate entities, but opposing ones, and that humans have learned how to control nature. They will say that humans have free will, and that we can limit our global numbers if we want to. They will even say that this is exactly what we’re doing in the ‘wealthier’ nations where population growth is slowing down while food production is increasing. That argument may seem to hold water if you only look through squinted eyes at one piece of the puzzle, but does it still when you look with eyes wide open at the larger picture on a global scale? No! It is easy to see, in past and present, that if food production increases globally, the global population invariably follows suit and increases tooi. First mostly as an effect of converting ever more ‘natural’ land into crop land. When that wasn’t possible any more, methods of extracting more and more from the same bit of land were developed, be it by coming up with crops which do better on poor soils; by bringing in nutrients from elsewhere to enrich that land, first natural organic matter and then petrochemicals and chemicals based on natural gas; or even growing food on artificial substrates.
Still, a little bit of attention to the fact that a few wealthy nationsii nowadays manage to curb the population growth within their borders is warranted. What really happens in these countries is that other factors limit population or population growth before the available amount of food does. There are quite a few factors contributing to this. Sometimes it literally is as simple as the bacteria that would be limited in growth by the size of the petri dish, even if there would still be plenty of food available. In a big busy city with a lack of housing for new families, population growth is almost certain to slow down. And then there is the fact that humans in ‘wealthy’ nations are becoming less and less fertile because their lifestyle is so terribly unhealthy. But one of the most important reasons is actually a trinity of reasons: work, work, work! For some it’s work to be able to barely afford survival, and for some it’s work mostly to be able to buy more cool stuff they don’t need for anything else than out-competing others. We have been turned from humans into consumersiii, and to be able to be the best possible consumer, you have to work as hard as you possibly can. And before you can work as hard as you can in a job where you can make as much as you possibly can, you will first have to spend practically your whole childhood, adolescence, and quite often a good part of your mature life studying! During the past decades people have had ever less time for starting a family, and when they did, they did it later and later in life and had ever less time to actually spend with the family. With both partners often working, many children only see their parents -the two people who should have a pretty large part in raising them- for a few minutes early in the morning, in the evening and for some time during the weekend. No wonder that ever more people choose to have fewer children, or none at all. After all, kids stand in the way of making money, and they cost heaps of money to boot! And what will these kids think about having kids when they grow up? In all fairness, this is the major reason why some nations experience a levelling off of population growthiv. It’s certainly not because people think it’s better for the world not to have many kids! See it in contrast with what are often called developing nations. Here children do not so much cost money to support, but they generate income when they become old enough to be useful. So in wealthier nations children have become a financial burden, while in poor nations they often improve the short-term (!) survival chances of the family.
Despite the reduction in their own local population growth, these ‘wealthy’ nations still do all they can to increase their own food productionv. If not to feed their people, why do they do this? Easy! food production stopped being first and foremost a means of feeding people a long time ago, and it became first and foremost a means of making profit and gaining power. The more food you produce, the more money you will earn and the more powerful you become! Do you doubt this? Do you think the owner of the supermarket you go to chose that career to feed hungry people or to get rich? How about the owners of large food corporations? Or even farmers? In general, with a few exceptions, to the food industry it doesn’t matter at all who is fed with the food they produce, or even if it feeds anyone at all. All that matters is that as much as possible is sold to boost their income!
What happens to the food anyway? First of all, roughly half of what is produced globally really literally doesn’t feed anyone because it is simply thrown awayvi. Hopefully that shocks you to the core, but the food industry doesn’t lose sleep over it at all: their money was made! Some of the food that will not rot away in landfills or contribute directly to global climate disruption by being incinerated will possibly stay in the country where it’s produced, but a good part of it may be transported and sold to nations which do not produce enough food to feed its own population. For clarity, these are not only poor nations! Some “wealthy” nations are net food importers because their own lands are too full of cities or too damaged to grow enough food while some poor and hungry nations are net food exporters because their food-producing land (or water!) is effectively owned by foreign food corporations which ship the food to wealthy nations which can afford a good price for the product! The locals have to make do with leftovers, or may even require food aid being sent in from those wealthy nationsvii! The real problem, as far as explosive population growth is concerned, arises ironically and painfully enough when food is sent to poor nations lacking ways to feed the inhabitants with what the land and water have to offer. Here it wreaks havoc even if it is sent as food aid! It is in these nations that the food produced in or by nations with a declining population growth actively fuels population growthviii! Food aid is not always a free gift. Not rarely it has to be paid for, immediately or in the future with interest, meaning that the receiving nation becomes indebted to the aiding body, be it nation or corporation, with all the long-term disadvantages for the former and advantages in terms of money and power for the latter). The story of trade and im- and export and aid is much more complicated than that, but this is it in a nutshell. For more information on food aid in particular, see http://theafricaneconomist.com/food-aid-does-not-help-africa-it-is-the-problem. The conclusion from all this is that there is absolutely no proof that humans don’t follow the same laws that other species do: an increase in global food production causes an increase in global population, as long as other factors don’t limit the population size.
Another reason that so many have trouble believing that human numbers are bound by the same laws as the rest of life on earth is that some kind of magical thinking has become ‘common knowledge’. Somehow humans have come to believe that the human population can grow first, and only then require food to keep the newly added bodies from starving. That this is a widely held belief doesn’t make it any less ridiculously wrong. It is an impossibility, akin to expecting that the aforementioned scientists’ petri dish can fill up with bacteria even if there is no food available. Do you remember that a petri dish not filling up with roughly the number of expected bacteria based on the available amount of food would (or at least should) instantly be headline news in newspapers worth their salt? Well, a petri dish filling up with bacteria while there isn’t any food there would completely and violently blow the previous headline off the front page, because this wouldn’t merely be biologically so unlikely that for all practical reasons it is impossible; it would actually require the rewriting of some of the most basic natural laws! It would mean that the bacteria can make their bodies out of…. nothing! It is absolutely impossible that bacteria, or any other kind of being, can increase the weight of their population beyond what the weight of the presently available food allows for.
And so it is with humans, too. To make a human body, there first needs to be food available to make the body out of. You can’t make cookies without having dough first, right? The culture dictates how big and thick the cookies can be; how much time and money there is for making cookies, and each culture therefore manages to make different numbers of cookies out of the same amount of dough. Wealthier nations make relatively few children out of the available food, whereas poor nations make as many as they possibly can. In every case the amount of dough is the ultimate deciding factor determining the eventual number of cookies, even if you don’t use it yourself but send it to someone else to make cookies out of! More dough means more cookies and more food means more humans, whatever recipe you follow! Each and every increase in human numbers ever since totalitarian agricultureix was invented was only possible because there was enough food to make the bodies first. The explosive growth of the human population has been caused by a similarly explosive growth of food production.
The third and final part of this article will be published on Friday 15-3.
iiAs a rule they are wealthy only in name, if you conveniently forget their incredible debts.
iii‘“Consume” means to use up or to destroy. Consumers are not the slightest bit embarrassed by this insulting label.’ ~Richar Adrian Reese in ‘What Is Sustainable’.
ivThis is different from the situation in so-called developing countries, where children are not so much a drain on the money coming in, but contribute to income when they’re old enough. In that case, the more the better!
vNot always within their own boundaries! Colonialism is still very much alive, although it’s in disguise.
vihttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/10/half-world-food-waste. You’ll notice that the author of this article thinks that we need food to feed a growing population, too. Oh well..
vii“Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president famously said that “Africans produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce.” There have been countries that have seen famine even in times that those countries were net food exporters – Ethiopia, Malawi, and Tanzania are examples but to mention a few.” ~Stocky Hoffmann.
viiiThis pushes the population in those nations even further beyond what food can be grown in the country itself, making them ever more in need of aid, and ever more dependent, and in an ever worsening situation.
ixhttp://www.ishmael.org/Education/Writings/Diminuendo_interview.shtml (see fourth answer)